Under Pressure: The Almost .500 Rundown


If the third time’s a charm, then maybe the third time to the third power is triply charming. This may not be the most sound American idiom logic, but it’s what fans of the Detroit Tigers have to resort to during times like these. Our team has been wallowing between six games and one game under the .500 mark since May 15th, or nearly a decade ago. Tonight against the Kansas City Royals, having gone 0-8 in their previous chances, they will make their ninth attempt to seize the mediocrity benchmark over a span of less than two months. Ninth time’s a charm, we hope.

Without further ado, here’s a synopsis of those eight Tiger losses with .500 on the line:

Thursday, May 17th; Minnesota Twins (4) at Detroit Tigers (3) – The Tigers made their so-far irremediable drop below .500 on May 16th, as they lost the first of a quick but arduous two-game home set with the last-place Twins. A day later, before a dense afternoon crowd of 37,840, Minnesota completed a jarring sweep with their 4-3 victory. Doug Fister, despite a quality start, was tagged with the loss as the Twins jumped on the board with three third-inning runs on back-to-back homers and added an unearned one in the fifth. From there, their task was simple; to watch Detroit, perpetually on the comeback trail, habitually shoot themselves in the foot. The Tigers got three runs back on three solo shots between the fifth and sixth innings to make it close, but what came next captured the essence of frustration. The bottom of the seventh saw two men reach with one out, only to be erased by a Ramon Santiago double play. In the eighth, Twins’ reliever Glen Perkins walked his first two batters on nine pitches before striking out Prince Fielder and getting Delmon Young to ground into yet another double play. Mercifully, Detroit was retired in order by closer Matt Capps. At the game’s conclusion, a rattled Jim Leyland lamented, “The only thing that has been consistent for this team is the inconsistency, and that’s mind-boggling to me.”

Saturday, May 19th; Pittsburgh Pirates (4) at Detroit Tigers (3) – For this Saturday matinée, the 42,953 at the ballpark were still buzzing on the heels of the Justin Verlander show—the near no-hitter—that occurred the previous night. “Surely,” fans everywhere presumed following the Friday night fireworks, “this will spark the Tigers.” With the ball in the hands of rookie Drew Smyly, the Tigers delivered another upsetting performance. Smyly pitched a decent game, but two big mistakes each turned into Andrew McCutchen two-run shots. The Detroit offense was decent as well, but while staying away from the double-play ball provided a cursory positive, they resorted to simply leaving their runners on base—ten were stranded in total, while the team benefitted from just one hit in eight chances with a runner in scoring position. “It looks like some of the guys are beginning to swing better,” Leyland opined hopefully after this one. “We’ve got to have some timely two-out hits.”

Tuesday, May 22nd; Detroit Tigers (3) at Cleveland Indians (5) – The Tigers traveled south to take on the Indians in an important series—the division rivals would have found themselves tied in the standings had Detroit won all three contests. Rick Porcello got the chance to lift the club this time and delivered an underwhelming performance. Once again though, the lack of clutch offense was probably more to blame. Alex Avila provided all three Tiger runs with a long home run in the second inning, but the team still left ten men stranded and went one-for-seven with men in scoring position. The Indians’ bullpen was unyielding, pitching three scoreless innings and allowing only three to reach base. At this point, Detroit hadn’t won back-to-back games since their hot start concluded on April 18th. Cleveland went on to sweep the Tigers out of town.

Monday, May 28th; Detroit Tigers (4) at Boston Red Sox (7) – After being swept by Cleveland, the Tigers avenged their home losses to the Twins by taking three straight games at Minnesota. On another high, the mercurial Detroit team was offered another chance at .500 as they ventured to Fenway Park. Fister got another shot to be the hero, but the Red Sox, led by Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Sweeney, pounded him out of the game after six earned runs in five innings. In this one, the Tigers capitalized on their scarce opportunities, which is to say that three of their seven hits were home runs. Jim Leyland and Gene Lamont both got their money’s worth before a blown call on a phantom foul tip led to an early Boston rally. “Was that a ridiculous call?” Leyland challenged reporters in a profanity-laced rant after the game. “Then write that it was a ridiculous (expletive) call!”

Wednesday, June 20th; St. Louis Cardinals (3) at Detroit Tigers (1) – About three weeks past after the Boston series, where they proceeded from the Fister game to lose three out of four, before the Tigers got another opportunity to eclipse the plateau of average. Coming off an 8-3 stretch that included a series victory on the road over the Cincinnati Reds, then at the top of the National League Central Division, Detroit again turned to Porcello, who fought through seven innings of two-run ball despite allowing ten hits. Keeping with the pattern, the problem lied with the bats, which scraped out just three singles, two doubles, and a walk against Jake Westbrook, who managed a complete game on 113 pitches.

Friday, June 22nd; Detroit Tigers (1) at Pittsburgh Pirates (4) – Fister’s turn came once again after the Tigers took the series finale against the Cardinals. He turned in another quality start—two earned runs over six rough frames—but was burned by two errors, one a throwing mishap of his own and one a Delmon Young misplay on a foul ball, which led to two runs. To make matters worse, Detroit was shut out for six frames by one of this season’s more surprising players, A.J. Burnett, whose record is currently a sterling 9-2. After a minor hiccup, the Pittsburgh relief corps, including ex-Detroiter Jason Grilli, retired the final seven Tiger batters in order. Leyland was matter-of-fact afterward: “We just didn’t muster much offense tonight.”

Tuesday, June 26th; Detroit Tigers (5) at Texas Rangers (7) – Buoyant as always, the Tigers appeared on their way up a week and a half ago (as they always do when they put together two wins in a row) after they jumped all over Justin Grimm on their way to beating Texas 8-2 in Arlington. The next evening, they threatened more of the same when they got to Yu Darvish for two first-inning runs. By the fourth inning, the Rangers had figured out Drew Smyly. He departed before the end of the fifth, and Detroit couldn’t recover from the hole he dug. “We did a decent job against Darvish,” Leyland said. “If you can get five runs off him you’re doing pretty well.” He was right—the loss was understandable with a rookie on the mound against the league’s top offense—but it was no less crushing against a team which Tiger fans view as a measuring stick.

Monday, July 2nd; Minnesota Twins (6) at Detroit Tigers (4) – This past Monday, for the fourth time since May 15th, Doug Fister was tasked with bringing the Tigers back to .500. This time around, he retired ten Twins in order to start the game before things turned catastrophic. Six earned runs were charged to Fister by the time the onslaught was over and he failed to record an out in the fifth inning. Four runs was a decent showing offensively, but Detroit also left 11 men on base and went two for eight with runners in scoring position.

Overall, the Tigers were outscored 40-24 in these eight games, with Fister taking four losses and Smyly and Porcello each absorbing two. They also made seven errors. The relative importance of these games has served to reinforce the idea that the Tigers are poor with runners in scoring position or with any runners aboard whatsoever—in total, they left 53 men stranded while mustering just nine hits with runners in scoring position in 52 at bats (enough for a paltry .192 average).

If you made it to the end of this, I thank you for your patience and hope it hasn’t made you sick. The Tigers will hand the ball to Smyly once again tonight, hoping to end one of the stranger losing streaks we’ll see as he faces the Kansas City Royals and their starter, Jonathan Sanchez.